Bach, Six Sonatas for Violin Solo with piano accompaniment by Robert Schumann, performed by violinist Benjamin Schmid and pianist Lisa Smirnova (MDG 333 0614-2); Mozart, works for piano (Sonata in C Major, K. 545, Sonata in F Major, K. 533/K. 494 and Fantasy in C Minor, K. 475) with freely added accompaniment for a second piano by Edvard Grieg, performed by Elisabeth Leonskaja and Sviatoslav Richter (Teldec 4509-90825-2):
These fascinating discs tell us a great deal about the 19th century's attitude toward the past. It had been the case that once a composer was dead, so was his music. The 19th century changed all that because the Romantics revered genius and made a cult of the masterwork.
But the Romantics often seemed to believe that earlier music needed "help." It was for this reason that Schumann, who was introduced to Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Mendelssohn, wrote the piano accompaniments that are featured on the MDG disc. He thought that the public would be more agreeable to hearing a violin accompanied by piano than a violin alone. And he was right. For most of the 19th century, it was in Schumann's versions that music lovers heard Bach's masterpieces. And that changed only with the coming of the 20th-century idea that the mixture of a 19th-century piano harmonization with 18th-century violin music constituted an aesthetic travesty.
Actually, Schumann's accompaniments are relatively modest -- he did not make any changes in the violin part and, as a rule, used the piano merely to reinforce the supporting tones of the solo part. (Sometimes, as in the famous chaconne that concludes the D minor Partita, Schumann's poetic imagination is less restrained.) These performances are certainly worth investigating. Schmid is a young (born 1968) Viennese who studied with Aaron Rosand. Schmid plays with brilliance, purity of tone and insight. He is superbly partnered by Smirnova, a 33-year-old Russian whose teachers include Anna Kantor and Lev Naumov.
A much more relaxed attitude toward the past is displayed by the Mozart-Grieg sonatas for two pianos. If Bach by way of Schumann still sounds reasonably like Bach, Mozart by way of Grieg certainly casts the favorite son of Salzburg in a Nordic and decidedly Romantic light. George Bernard Shaw called the sonatas "Norway's Revenge."
Their genesis was as teaching devices. It is within the lifetime of many readers of this newspaper that piano teachers accompanied students on a second piano as the student performed. Most such two-piano teaching pieces have mercifully passed from obscurity into oblivion, but these particular works deserve to survive because of their zany genius.
Grieg's method is to play Mozart "straight" on the first piano and to appropriate his music in his own terms on the second instrument. When Mozart's famous "easy" Sonata in C -- the first great music many 10- and 11-year-olds get to play -- suddenly begins to sound like something out of "Peer Gynt," the effect startles and charms the ear.
These sonatas may be bizarre but they are played with such love by Richter and Leonskaja -- especially in the slow movements -- that this CD may become the late-night listening party trick of the year. It's what you will play for your friends at 2 a.m., just as they are about to leave and when they mistakenly believe they have heard everything.
Grieg's feeling that "updating" Mozart for modern ears does no permanent damage to the music is very different from the currently fashionable notion that it is sacrilege to perform Mozart's music in any manner that he himself might not recognize. There is something terribly hubristic about this latter view. At least Grieg -- like Mozart himself -- knew how to have fun.